For Maine’s 16 counties, coming up with affordable budgets to fund the array of services required by law becomes more difficult with every passing year. Here in Hancock County, commissioners still are struggling to finalize a budget that avoids, as much as possible, a substantial increase in the taxes assessed on county municipalities.
Local control has been a sacred covenant in New England since the country was formed, and municipal and county governments have been integral components of that covenant. Even the smallest towns in Maine place a high value on their individual identities and independence. That was most recently demonstrated during the contentious forced formation of regional school units (RSUs) under the administration of Governor John Baldacci. Several RSUs already have dissolved or have been reduced in size — one of them right here in Hancock County.
But there also are instances in which municipalities have found it in their own best interest to enter in voluntary common sense agreements to share, and thus reduce, some of the costs associated with local government. Here in our county, Bar Harbor and Mount Desert now share a police chief. Gouldsboro and Winter Harbor share a fire chief.
Given Maine’s history and culture, it is likely that any legislative attempt to shrink the number of counties in Maine would create myriad logistical and demographic problems and undoubtedly would be doomed to failure. But perhaps it is time to examine whether every single county needs to separately provide the full range of services now available to citizens. Do we truly need 16 courthouses, 16 sheriff’s departments and county jails, 16 judges of probate and registers of deeds with associated clerks, 16 county treasurers and/or financial managers and other agencies — all supervised by 48 or more county commissioners?
Populations served by the individual county governments vary widely in size, from 238,000 in Cumberland County to just 17,000 in Piscataquis County. What if Maine’s counties retained their individual identities but entered into joint ventures to share services, just as two or more businesses might do? Might such a consolidation reduce the wasted expense of duplication and take advantage of size to improve efficiency?
The two graphics at the top of these columns provide one possible approach to a joint venture concept. The left graphic shows each of Maine’s counties and the 2014 estimated population of each in thousands. The right graphic shows a consolidation that would place all but three counties into larger shared service regions: Standing alone, because of physical size or population, would be Cumberland (287,798) York (200,707) and Aroostook (69,446). Combined service regions would include Kennebec/Androscoggin (228,552), Penobscot/Piscataquis (170,443), Waldo/Knox/Lincoln/Sagadahoc (147,942), Oxford/Franklin/Somerset (138,699), and Hancock/Washington (86,502).
Clearly, those larger service regions would result in a loss of convenience to many Mainers. A thorough examination of such a concept also might determine that fewer service centers — courthouses, probate and deeds offices and jails — simply could not meet public needs, either in terms of time or volume.
Readers may find it easy to dismiss any sort of county consolidation without further thought. But as public employee salaries and benefits, as well as other government expenses, continue to spiral upward, the possibility of shared services inevitably will become more attractive. Circumstances and computer technology already are forcing new thinking and new attitudes toward sharing common services, as in hospitals, high schools, trash disposal, rural policing, regional planning and transportation.
Staying small and local may be beautiful, but it may cease to be affordable.